I listened to the “Writing Excuses” episode on Flaws versus Handicaps, and I really enjoyed the discussion. I’ve thought before about how to incorporate flaws into a roleplaying character without imposing undue difficulties on the player and/or rest of the party. It gave me something to think about.

In the podcast, they defined flaws and handicaps several different ways, which averaged out to something like “flaws are the character’s fault, handicaps are not,” which I really liked. It made them easy to digest. Movies, comics, and television came up during the discussion, of course, and I think Superman came up again.

Flaws and handicaps ultimately serve as obstacles that must be overcome, but depending on the format of the story you’re telling, you don’t always want to actually resolve a flaw or handicap, because that can lead to the difficulty of acquiring new flaws or handicaps, which can make suspension of disbelief increasingly difficult for your audience. Superman’s a great example.

Superman has no flaws in many incarnations, and so to provide conflict, the writers must impose believable handicaps. Let me backtrack a moment. He has a weakness to Kryptonite and magic. In recent decades, he needs (somewhat constant) exposure to our sun’s light “to charge his super-batteries.” These flaws do tend to make him a little less “super,” but more believable to today’s skeptical audience.

Older Superman stories were obsessed with imposing increasingly bizarre handicaps, and exploiting his, like, two flaws (at the time). It got more and more difficult to justify him falling for the circumstances he found himself in, unless you attribute him with a “gullible” flaw, which no one particularly wants in a superhero. Now I’m stuck on Superman, let me get back to what I wanted to get at about circumventing obstacles.

You don’t always have to blow up the boulder that falls in your path. Sometimes it’s more interesting to find out that you can actually reach your destination without even touching the boulder, or sometimes without even moving. Clever characters can be very entertaining to watch. We like rogues, after all. And look at Batman!

Sometimes, it’s interesting to watch them fail to overcome a flaw (or handicap), and then see the results as they take it. This can sometimes proliferate additional flaws or handicaps, as events snowball out of the hero’s control. Once you’ve built up tension through failure, the hero can succeed again, and you don’t need to resolve a flaw.

Of course, stories where things are never resolved can be frustrating, so what you have is a balancing act: you need to keep your hero’s flaws relevant and weigh the storytelling benefits of allowing them to fail against resolving their flaws and handicaps, which brings you closer to the end of the story.